Ireland: 5 Things Their Euro 2012 Playoff Win in Estonia Taught Us
Ireland's 4-0 thrashing of Estonia in Tallinn has all but booked the Republic's place at Euro 2012.
Barring the most disastrous of capitulations in Tuesday's second leg in Dublin, Ireland will be preparing for their first appearance at a major tournament for a decade come the end of the season.
It was a win which not only serves as some small comfort for their morale-crushing loss to France two years ago—an extra-time defeat in Paris courtesy of Thierry Henry's now infamous double dribble—but also for every other time they have come up short in qualification playoffs.
In previous years they have lost two-legged playoffs to Netherlands (Euro 96), Belgium (1998 World Cup) and Turkey (Euro 2000) as well as France in their bid to reach the 2010 World Cup.
Here are five things we learned from that historic win at the A. Le Coq Arena.
Robbie Keane Is a Bona Fide Legend
Keane always seemed destined for big things ever since he made his debut as a teenager at Wolverhampton Wanderers. However, few could have predicted just how well he would do for his country upon making his senior debut against Czech Republic in 1998.
His two goals in Tallinn took his international tally up to 53. That means there are only 24 players in the history of the game to have scored more international goals than him.
There is no shame in any striker being behind the likes of Pele, Ferenc Puskas, Gerd Muller and Gabriel Batistuta on any list, but he currently sits above such goal machines as Samuel Eto'o, Didier Drogba, David Villa, Andriy Shevchenko and—perhaps most satisfyingly of all—Henry.
He is also one of only six players to score in three consecutive matches at World Cup finals, with all of his goals coming in the 2002 World Cup, Ireland's last major tournament.
With a place in Poland and Ukraine all but in the bag, he has plenty of opportunity to add to that hugely impressive total.
Jonathan Walters Proves There Is Strength in Depth
When Stoke manager Tony Pulis signed the Birkenhead-born forward from Ipswich Town for £2.75 million in the summer of 2010, few outside Portman Road knew exactly what he was buying.
The proposition Walters turned out to be was a strong and tireless forward who can give defenders a torrid time both inside the box and running down the channels. So it was no surprise that he fit right in at the Britannia Stadium.
The other quality he brings is that his goals prove usually prove to be lucky charms: the 3-1 home defeat to Newcastle a fortnight ago was the first time he had scored for the Potters and they had gone on to lose.
In the build-up to this match, Kevin Doyle's suspension and injuries to Shane Long and Leon Best meant the big concern for fans of the Republic was who would provide the muscle to compliment Keane's hustle. Giovanni Trapattoni had the choice between Walters and West Brom forward Simon Cox, and the Italian was vindicated in his choice as the former scored his first international goal.
Doyle is expected to resume his place in the team for the formality of a second leg at the Aviva Stadium, but Walters has done his prospects of making the final 23-man squad no harm whatsoever.
Giovanni Trapattoni's Style Is Justified
The man fondly dubbed Trap O'Toni by his adopted nation is one of the most successful managers in the history of the club game. In his time at Juventus he won six Serie A titles and all three of the European club trophies that were available back in the day.
He would go on to win further league championships at Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, Benfica and Red Bull Salzburg before turning his attentions to international management.
While his press conference performances can be flamboyant—in the build-up to the Tallinn game, for example, he told the media "don't say cat until you've got it in the bag" and "we must think these 180 minutes is our life, players, manager, the Irish people"—the style he has employed for Ireland has been anything but.
While others have looked in from the outside and been impressed at the results he has achieved in his current job, there are many in Ireland who are not so pleased with his ultra-conservative approach.
They may have a point—after all, they are the ones who watch Ireland play every game—but losing out so narrowly on a World Cup spot and now almost certainly romping to a first European Championship place for 24 years is all the Frank Drebin look-a-like needs to point to as proof that his tactics are working.
Richard Dunne Is Pure Irish Granite
The centre-back has not been without his problems throughout his career. The fondness for a beer or two (an Irishman? Who knew?) could have cost him his career at the top level while he was at Manchester City. That problem resurfaced earlier this year when he and Aston Villa teammate James Collins were both fined two weeks wages for a drunken row with club staff on a team bonding trip at a posh health spa.
For all that, when he is on the pitch the 32-year-old remains a colossus. Ireland conceded just seven goals in their 10 group matches, a record only Croatia can match. The clean sheet in Estonia meant Ireland have only conceded one goal in more than 950 minutes of action, and that was in the 2-1 win over Armenia in which Dunne had scored to put his team two goals up.
It was Dunne's obdurate performance in the goalless draw in Moscow which is perhaps the defining moment of Ireland's qualification campaign. His heroics included a multitude of vital blocks and tackles that left him covered in so much blood that he had to change his shirt.
Along with goalkeeper Shay Given, midfielder Glenn Whelan and Keane, Dunne forms part of the Irish spine that has been the backbone of their success in this campaign.
Everyone Likes to See Ireland Do Well
In spite of the rather unsatisfying spectacle that is the Ireland team under Trapattoni, few could begrudge them such an astonishing victory in Tallinn.
When Henry made his decisive handball in Paris two years ago, the international condemnation of the France striker was perhaps so vehement because his transgression was committed against such a universally popular nation.
There is barely a major city in the world where you cannot find an Irish bar, and St Patrick's Day is celebrated by many countries with far more enthusiasm than that of their own patron saint.
The hordes of Irish fans who descend upon any city their team are playing in, half of them often without match tickets, always add an extra fun dimension to a match.
Perhaps it is a lazy stereotype that the Irish are a a happy-go-lucky nation that just wants loves to invite everyone to their party. But one thing, no matter how inexplicable, is undeniable: football tournaments just as always seem to be more fun when Ireland are involved.
That is why the win in Tallinn has been received with almost universal pleasure.